Reengaging with our Subversive Traditions: A Conversation with Amaranta

A socially committed singer-songwriter talks about Venezuela’s rich musical tradition and her own artistic production.

Part of a longstanding tradition of revolutionary singer-songwriters in Venezuela, Amaranta began singing and composing music at the age of eleven. Her work is socially engaged, but also inspired by the small and wonderful things of life. In this interview, we talk with Amaranta about Venezuela’s rich musical tradition, and about her own formation and musical production.

Venezuela’s musical tradition is tremendously rich. Talk to us a little about that diversity.

Venezuela is musically prolific indeed. There are at least 215 documented genres, and I would dare to say that in each region there are at least 15 musical genres. Imagine that! In llanero music [from Venezuela’s plains region] alone there are 78 genres, and there are 120 tambor genres [literally “drum genres” referring to the music produced by a part of the African diaspora].

Creole music is really vast and diverse. I know maybe 25 percent of that music, but I’m in a constant process of discovering new genres that I find fascinating. In addition to that, the harmonic forms in our music are also very diverse.

What was your training process as a musician?

I was born into a musical family. My father had a more formal, academic background, but with wide interests, from jazz to lyrical singing, to urban music. In fact, among his interests was salsa, which in the 70s and 80s was a very powerful and surprising movement. Many salseros had gone from playing Beethoven and other composers within the “classical” canon to playing salsa. It was a movement that brought together the self-taught but versatile street musician with the formally-trained virtuoso.

The European tradition was also important for my father. The exodus from Europe left its mark on our music: the migrants, some exiled, others economically displaced, began to form orchestras and so-called “old world” music left its mark on our music.

My mother was more rooted in popular music, in the music of the common people… And that is how my love for the music of the pueblo, so diverse and so rich, began to grow.

In brief, that’s how I began, although I also had formal training. I studied in the National Orchestra System and participated in a choir, but formalities didn’t suit me. When the teacher gave me a score, it became an approximate guide, but I found that exploring the contours of the music in a free manner was far more interesting. As you can imagine, that doesn’t work with choral music.

So I did receive technical and formal training in lyrical singing. I sang opera and operetta. In short, I went through many genres, and that experience left its mark. In the end, however, I returned to the genres that are closer to the people. I began to study musical genres more systematically when I was 17, investigating the origins of many popular rhythms in their contexts. That’s where I found my true vocation.

In the United States, slaves were forbidden from producing music with drums. That did not happen in Venezuela, so the violently-extracted African diaspora managed to keep alive many more musical traditions. Can you talk to us about these roots?

It is true that the tambor, the musical traditions of Saint John and so many other living traditions here are of African origin. There is little mediation in this music and a large dose of rebelliousness.

I would say that jazz and rock (with their origins in the blues) are genres that have an African germ as well. However, it is true that the genres that bloomed in the US are more syncretic: there are more mediations. Traditions here like the Cruz de mayo [an Afro-Venezuelan cultural festival honoring the cross, which is adorned with flowers and sang to] and the innumerable saint’s festivities that disguise non-European spiritual forms with catholic rituals are, by definition, also syncretic, but the music remains close to the drumming brought here by the slaves from West Africa.

The Cruz de mayo, together with the festivals of Saint John, Saint Benedict, and Saint Pascual, and the rich forms of devotion to Saint Anthony… all these traditions are overseen and sanctioned by the Church. However, in times past, the slaves, their sons and daughters, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, maintained their religious and spiritual traditions in disguise by incorporating them into the Catholic tradition.

The enslaved people would say: we must pay homage to Shangó [Yoruba orisha or deity]; there is Santa Bárbara and she will become Shangó’s representation in this new world. There are many festivities and traditions that managed to survive western domination through syncretism. People learned how to sustain their traditions and rites over time; they may have lost some rituals through religious and cultural domination, but even when their content changed superficially, they managed to maintain the essence.

Additionally, in the cumbes or kilombos [towns where self-emancipated slaves lived], the slaves also maintained the maroon tradition. In those festivities, people gathered all the food available and shared it with each other. However, these events were also spaces to celebrate life, freedom, and spiritual traditions, which always went hand in hand with music. In addition to that, in the maroon festivals, people conspired, talked about how to solve problems within the community, etc. These festivities were not mere spaces for enjoyment, they also carried subversive content!

The popular musical movement [in Venezuela] is very powerful: it brings the people together, they dance and sing with irreverence. They also build community. Yet these events also trigger conversations about politics, because people always want something better. Many insurrections in Venezuela were born in popular fiestas.

Indeed, music and politics go hand in hand here – they are not two separate spheres. As a musician with a great deal of social sensibility, what role did music play in your political formation?

When I was a little girl, I listened to traditional music at my grandmother’s house. There was a record collection there. I would pick up the vinyl and listen to – almost study – that music. As I told you, my old man was interested in more modern and experimental production, but he also had his roots here in Venezuela. Today I realize that all that music in the popular folk tradition has a great deal of social content. Identities and struggles are heard in it. In fact, class struggle is very present in the lyrics of folk music.

When I was a child, I would also go to Sunday Mass with my mother. There the priest would play music by Alí Primera, and the message combining protest with love for humanity left its mark on me. My passion for music grew, and so did my social awareness. From there to acquiring class and national consciousness it is not a big leap.

I performed lyrical singing, pop, rock, merengue, and I even sang at weddings… The truth is that I like all sorts of music, but the music that most appeals to me, the one that I feel in my bones, is traditional music, and that music always has a political subtext. That is why my work today is in that area, among the popular genres that I have been privileged to encounter, study, develop, and perform.

You mentioned the revolutionary singer-songwriter Alí Primera. What can you tell us about the leftist singer-songwriter tradition to which he belonged, which is so important in Latin America? How did it influence your musical production?

Alí left a mark on all of those who struggle. He influenced those of us who make music and those who don’t. However, there are other voices that have been very influential to me. I would bring to the fore Lilia Vera – who sang for social justice and whose music was rooted in Venezuelan popular song; Otilio Galíndez, a popular music composer with a very rich work who taught us how to dig into our own musical genres; and, of course, Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque, Daniel Viglietti, Pablo Milanés, Silvio Rodríguez, and Violeta Parra.

Our [Bolivarian] Process has a rich political-musical heritage. In the 70s and 80s, there was a boom of politicized musicians. I mentioned Lilia, but I could also add La Chiche Manaure, Don Pío Alvarado, and many others.

However, I’d like to come back to Alí Primera. He was an extraordinary musician: his oeuvre exceeds 200 songs! It is one thing to be a singer-songwriter and another to perform. Both require full commitment. Alí was both, but he also was a committed leftist militant who used music as a vehicle for struggle.

He learned a lot by listening to the people – about the injustices in the city and in the countryside, about the landowners who took the land from campesinos and exploited them – and he made their struggles heard with his voice and his guitar or with an orchestra. I consider Alí the most important Venezuelan musician because of his prolificity and scope, but also because of his huge political influence on the pueblo of Venezuela and Latinamerica – he brought us back to our own roots and our own struggles!

Hugo Chávez showed great enthusiasm for popular culture in this country. How did the late President influence musical production in Venezuela?

As is the case for many Venezuelans, music was also important in Chávez’s political formation: the Venezuelan cancionero [songbook] left its mark on him. He always spoke about Alí Primera in the present tense. But the joropo, the music of his native llanos [Venezuela’s plains region], was also very important to him. As a young patriotic officer, he often sang this kind of music.

The words in joropo are charged with content. In fact, the whole creole cancionero is full of social content as I was telling you before. But llanero music is the music of the followers of José Tomás Boves [a popular caudillo who led a struggle against upper-class patriots], and Bolívar’s troops, some of whom carried their harps wherever they went. Llanero music may have a bucolic content, and love and loss are at its core, but the struggle against the oppressor also permeates it.

I would say that it is in music that Chávez found his identity as someone who defends the people. This music that comes from the heart, from the entrails, is the rhizome that began to form him. Of course, as the popular saying goes, every pulpero [shop owner] praises his cheese, but for me, it is impossible to understand Chávez without understanding his roots, and his roots are in the music of the humble campesino. Popular music builds class consciousness. It doesn’t operate as a fashionable playlist nor as a tool for domination. Instead, it creates identity and forges commitment.

That being said, when Chávez became president, he began focusing on the National Orchestra System. Of course, he always sang and he showed his love for the music of the people. In his first years as president, however, he focused on promoting the movement of Children’s and Youth Orchestras. Incorporating barrio children and youth into an orchestra is a political act. Imagine that… symphonic music in the barrio!

Additionally, the National Orchestra System is a political project not only for Venezuela but for the whole continent. Today there are children and youth orchestras in many Latin American countries, and the seeds for this were planted by Chávez.

Furthermore, the musicians of the National Orchestra System don’t only master the European repertoire. They have expanded the orchestra’s repertoire to include pieces by Venezuelan composers. Now that, as a result of the crisis, many of the musicians trained in the National Orchestra System have left the country, the sense of a nation survives in them through music. For me, Chávez is the source of that encounter between academic orchestral music and Venezuelan culture, and it’s very powerful!

Of course, I am not going to deny that there is a downside to this, because orchestral music always ends up displacing popular music. Still, in that opening between the Venezuelan and the classical repertoire, something interesting happened: it raised the self-esteem of the Venezuelan people.

Importantly, Chávez didn’t underestimate the power of the culture industry. With that in mind, he asked some of us: what are you going to contribute to this process? And with that question as a trigger, La Cantora Cultural Collective, of which I was part, developed a very interesting project with its roots in the political process.

With Chávez’s support, the popular music movement began to flourish some ten or twelve years ago. However, contrary to what happened with the National Orchestra System, institutional support has often been lacking. Why is that?

Those who have control of the cultural industry in Venezuela, from its technological aspects to its distribution, may be in government institutions, but they sometimes replicate the logic of commercial production. Those who control the culture machine are not like Chávez was. They do not value the pueblo’s culture because they have been co-opted by the global culture industry that controls both music’s form and content.

Consciously or not, the Venezuelan cultural industry became aligned with the mainstream, which means that non-mainstream musicians receive little support and get limited distribution. Overcoming the barriers raised by the industry is one of our pending tasks. This revolution, with all its battles and all its victories, relies a great deal on existing institutions, and they are conventional in nature when it comes to culture.

I have a motto that goes as follows: love is to loyalty what idolatry is to fanaticism. With that in mind, I often think that it is more valuable to have a hundred spectators who bond with my work than thousands who are simply passive recipients of what is imposed by the culture machine. That is why I believe that we must build a new form of communication that engages with the desires of the people and is not imposed from the outside.

In these times of imperialist attacks on Venezuela and tragic setbacks for the popular project, music is sometimes the last redoubt for the majority’s sense of identity and of nation. We saw it just a few days ago in a somewhat improvised street concert in which you participated. There, the most humble people, from the street vendor to the street cleaner, came together and one could feel a sense of belonging. It seems to me that in the midst of this crisis, music is sometimes the only space where the Patria [homeland] can still be felt.

The popular traditions – from cimarronera festivals at the kilombo, the tambores, the joropo llanero – all those traditions are alive and well, despite the crisis we are living through. Music becomes an opportunity to embrace one another, to reconnect with that which is ours, and to exchange words. It is there when we talk to the neighbor whose son died way too young, where we talk about the food that went missing from our tables, and about the condition of the hospitals.

And as the popular saying goes: in the early morning twilight, when everyone is tired, when the party is coming to an end, that is when conversation begins…

Alí Primera’s phrase “canción necesaria” is used to talk about singer-songwriters whose lyrics are obviously politicized, but there are many kinds of “necessary songs.” During his last address to the nation, Chávez sang the patriotic hymn “Patria querida” [Beloved Homeland] on public television. What kind of music does Venezuela need today?

What the people need today could even be a bolero or a merengue… whatever music helps us to go on living, that is a canción necesaria. In fact, the term canción necesaria is somewhat redundant because people need humanity, and music brings us closer to humanity, even when it does not have an obvious political message. That is to say, pamphleteer music has many virtues, but all music that is close to the people has a metamorphic power.

In these difficult times, cultural projects bring beauty forth and help us reflect on our present. I believe that – as opposed to the cultural machine that is moved by the dollar – we need to foster music with deep roots in our culture. That music is necessary!